Eurofighter at last able to drop bombs, but only 'austerely'
In the sense of expensively but not very usefully
Comment Some of the Royal Air Force's new Eurofighter Typhoon jets have today been announced as capable of delivering weapons against ground targets, in addition to their initial role of air-to-air combat.
This has been reported as meaning that the already horrifyingly expensive, long-delayed planes are "fully combat ready". However, even the Eurofighter's friends within the defence community don't deny that the RAF - far from finally being satisfied with the plane at long last - wants to spend billions more in coming years on further upgrades to the Eurofighter.
The "fully combat ready" howler comes from the BBC. Beeb writers also quoted the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Clive Loader, who said:
"This latest capability upgrade gives the Royal Air Force the most operationally flexible aircraft it has ever had."
The capability upgrades now completed and tested are principally the modification of some UK Eurofighters to carry bombs and the fitting of an Israeli-made targeting pod, the Litening III.
Modern smartbombs such as the RAF's Enhanced Paveways can be dropped using only their onboard satnav guidance, but this reduces their accuracy and it is preferable to shine a laser dot on the target for them to home in on. The Litening pod can shine such a dot, and has high-powered infrared and daylight cameras so that Eurofighter pilots high up and far off can see what they're aiming at. Pod video can also be downlinked to forward air controllers on the ground, allowing them to confirm that the laser designator is in fact pointed where it should be - a serious issue when dropping 500 or 1000 lb bombs which cause widespread destruction.
The RAF already had a British-made targeting pod, supposedly able to do all of this, known as TIALD. However, TIALD seems not to be much good. It was said to have performed embarrassingly poorly in the Iraq invasion of 2003, and the RAF seem much more pleased with the Litening.
With a Litening pod and a load of smartbombs, a Eurofighter can now drop bombs to the direction of ground troops or go after known ground targets on its own, including quite tough bunkers and the like, if the smartbombs are of a suitable type. And the Eurofighter is going to be more than adequate at air-to-air combat, the mission it was actually designed for.
So why does the MoD describe the new air-to-ground kit as an "austere" capability? What more could the RAF want? It is a fact that they want a lot more upgrades. The MoD is in closed-door negotiations at present regarding the third tranche of Eurofighters, not yet ordered. Reports indicate that the cost to the UK of its final 232-jet fleet of Eurofighters might soon balloon from £20bn - the estimate in recent years - to £25bn+, driven by enhancements to the Tranche III aircraft.
(Incidentally, the RAF has plans to use only 140-odd Eurofighters. A large number of the Tranche I and II jets will likely be permanently mothballed - essentially thrown away - as happened in the late '80s with the Tornado F3. Cost to the taxpayer per Eurofighter actually used could beat £180m, more than an American F-22 Raptor stealth ultrafighter.)
Some of the desired enhancements make sense - it seems that more engine power for the Eurofighter is being sought, allowing it to lift heavy air-to-ground payloads even from "hot and high" airbases like those in Afghanistan. Many of the desired bells and whistles are a lot more arguable, though. It seems a sure bet that the RAF will want to kit out its jets with standoff weapons like the Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, able to strike a couple of hundred miles into heavily defended airspace without risking jets and pilots.
There will also be aspirations towards "suppression of enemy air defences", the knocking out of enemy missile batteries and radars so as to dominate the medium and high altitudes above well-equipped, hostile nations. (The low altitudes would still remain dangerous in air force terms, owing to the possibility of portable shoulder-fired missiles.)
In the RAF's view, then, the Eurofighter is in no way fully combat ready, as it cannot on its own seize control of the skies above a nation such as Syria or Iran. The RAF might struggle even to mount a one-off lightning raid into such skies, a thing which even the Israeli air force can do if pushed - despite having a much smaller budget.
Many people would deny the need for Blighty alone to mount deep offensive air operations above well-armed nations. Others would say it's potentially nice to have now, perhaps to prevent such nations building nukes - but once the nations have the nukes, the time of usefulness has passed. By some UN estimates, let alone the more hawkish timescales, Iran will be nuke-armed before Eurofighter Tranche III can be operational.
Still others would say that there are cheaper and better ways to achieve this sort of capability - perhaps by using imported Stealth planes from America, combined with existing hardware. That's the Israeli plan. Funnily enough, the UK is also aiming to buy a version of the same Stealth fighter-bomber as Israel - possibly making Tranche III superbomber Eurofighters a tad pointless. Others still point to the Tomahawk cruise missile, which can be fired from out at sea to hit even quite well-defended targets hundreds of miles inland - at just a couple of hundred thousand pounds a pop, if bought in bulk.
Then there's a strong lobby who'd argue that this bombing big, well-equipped enemy nations without American help is all very well, but what actually happens every single year without fail is fighting against people mainly armed with rifles, rocket-launchers and improvised bombs. Air power overhead can be useful in such a fight - especially if you're short of ground troops, as the UK is in Helmand province right now - but it doesn't need to cost £185m for a manned plane which can only stay overhead for a couple of hours and only drops heavy, indiscriminate ordnance.
Indeed, a nice long-endurance unmanned Reaper with more suitable weapon options and better ground-surveillance capabilities costs just £10m, according to the MoD. Current plans however have the RAF fielding just two of these for the foreseeable future, owing to lack of funds. An Apache attack chopper - also very well-suited to the current Afghan war, also available in limited numbers - is only £50m-odd. Against hugely cheaper Reapers or Apaches - let alone Syrian or Iranian air defences - the Eurofighter's present air-to-ground capability is indeed "austere".
And none of this does anything about what our ground troops, fighting a deadly war right now, actually need from the skies. Rather than planning to pour another £5bn down the Eurofighter money-pit, the RAF might like to order some more Chinook lift choppers. An anonymous paratrooper leader in Helmand recently told the Telegraph what he really really wants from the air force:
"If I could get my hands on four Chinooks for two whole days ..."
He could buy them outright for less than it costs to obtain one operational Eurofighter on the old estimates. If the Tranche III cost escalations happen as they seem likely to, he could have at least seven.
There are also rumblings of a crisis facing the UK shorthaul airlift fleet, likewise grafting hard in Afghanistan and Iraq, as it waits for delayed, expensive A400M Euro-transports. (Needless to say, cheaper and better planes could have been in service already, but this would have involved some job losses in Blighty. Job losses which now seem a racing certainty to happen soon anyway.)
Against this kind of background, then, a UK taxpayer who believes that British troops in combat deserve our support - regardless of how we may feel about the orders that put them there - won't be feeling all that chuffed about this latest Eurofighter news.
Such taxpayers might really be quite depressed, actually, at Air Marshal Loader's description of today's Eurofighter annoucement as no more than a "step in the development of this remarkable aircraft". ®